The elephant in the college classroom

By Tom Purcell, Special to the Katy Times
Posted 9/8/22

Half of that goes to the bank for your college fund!”

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The elephant in the college classroom


Half of that goes to the bank for your college fund!”

That’s what my father told me in the 8th grade, when I got my first paycheck for waking up at 5:30 a.m. to ride my bike a few miles to Cool Springs Driving Range before school, where I plucked golf balls for a dollar an hour.

My dad had six kids to feed on a single income, after all. Paying my full college tuition bill was never going to be an option.

There was only one option for me: work.

When I got a little older, I started mowing lawns to make more money than the driving range could ever pay.

When I got my driver’s license at 16, I decided I’d become a stone mason. Retaining walls were all over the place in hilly Pittsburgh. I hit the motherlode with that entrepreneurial decision and by the time I was 17 I had four people working for me.

The “young man saving for college” line resonated with customers, and I was able to fund almost all of my first-year college costs with the money my back-breaking labor was able to net.

Money was still tight, though.

After paying for my first year of college, I needed to borrow some money for the next three years—and I was grateful that those government-backed funds from banks were available to me.

But to keep my borrowing to the bare minimum, I worked all year while in college.

I worked in the Penn State cafeteria, waking early to help prepare breakfast, then clean dirty plates.

I sold my plasma twice a week—a money-making enterprise that nearly killed me and terrified my mother.

During my senior year, I became manager of a creepy rooming house.

It was dank and old, but it was cheap and, in addition to the free rent, the owner paid me to shovel coal into the auger, maintain the lawn and make frequent household repairs.

The high point of my college-work career was becoming a bouncer at Penn State’s legendary Rathskellar bar—still the coolest thing I ever did.

I see now I was lucky to attend college in the early 1980s. reports that in the last 50 years college tuition costs have risen five times the inflation rate.

If tuitions had kept pace with inflation, public universities would be charging an average of about $20,000 a year—HALF of what they are charging today.

Why have college costs grown so rapidly?

The simple answer: Easy money.

As the borrowing limits of government-backed and direct government college loans have increased, so have tuitions.

The $1.7 trillion in student debt held by millions of young people today is in large part due to tuition inflation. Colleges took full advantage of all that easy loan money students were getting and jacked up their prices.

Now President Biden wants to forgive $10,000 in college-loan debt for millions of kids who willingly took it on—even though college grads, over time, eventually earn more than most of those who did not attend college.

The trouble is, debt cannot simply be “forgiven”—especially when it amounts to more than $300 billion.

It can only be transferred to taxpayers like me who scrimped and saved and took on a dozen crummy jobs to avoid taking on student-loan debt.

That’s the big, fat elephant in the college classroom.

Here’s another certainty:

Repaying other peoples’ debt obligations is going to be as fun as plucking golf balls off dew-covered grass at 5:30 a.m. every morning.

Tom Purcell, creator of the infotainment site, is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review humor columnist. Email him at